Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You
Anastasia Lotareva
Takie Dela
August 11, 2017

In Russia, there are six people left who can tell tales, sing songs, and simply converse in one of the world’s most ancient languages.

The dialects of the Selkup language are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era. Researchers from around the world study the Selkup dialects, and Russian linguists recently were awarded an unprecedented grant to research them. If the language of the southern Selkups disappears before scholars are able to record it, what the language has preserved for thousands of years will disappear forever. 

“God got paradise, the Devil got Narym Territory,” laughs an elderly mustached man as he tosses another heavy bag on board the speedboat or kaeski. The boat is moored directly to the shore, since there is no dock. It is loaded with food, parcels, and medicines, as well as children.

“He’s going to his grandma’s. You see that he doesn’t forget to get off at Shpalozavod.”

There are no strangers here at all. The first mate, who sells tickets printed back in Soviet times, regards us with suspicion.

“May I ask where you’re going? To Narym? Whatever for?”

“We’re writing an article about the Selkups.”

“Ah . . . More researchers going to see our Ostyaks.”

He closes the door to the deck. It is strictly forbidden to go on deck when the boat is under speed: the weather is poor, and the boat is badly buffeted. In short order, the small craft jumps right into the middle of the Ob River. On the right is the taiga, on the left is the taiga. For several hours and many kilometers there is nothing but the taiga.

Like Sverdlov and Stalin
There are now less than fifty indigenous minorities in Russia. The list of these peoples was approved at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it has been constantly revised downward. The Selkups are relatively numerous. There are a few thousand of them in Tyumen Region, fifty in Krasnoyarsk Territory, and nearly two thousand in northern Tomsk Region, where Narym is located. The term Selkup emerged and gradually came into usage in the 1930s. Previously, the names Ostyak and Ostyak-Samoyed were used. They are still used in ordinary, non-scholarly language, and sometimes they seep into official documents. The Selkups tend to call themselves Ostyaks.

Narym. This building was the police station before the revolution. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkups have been divided the last three hundred years or so. There are the northern Selkups, who live along the Taz and Turukhan Rivers, and there are the southern Selkups, the Narym Selkups, who live in the middle basin of the Ob River. They have different folkways, now nearly erased by time and assimilation, and different dialects. If Selkups speak their native tongues, southerners would not understand northerners. Only they do not speak it. The Selkups started to disappear and assimilate as early as the nineteenth century, and the language retreated when the Selkups settled in Russian villages. Their secretive, forest way of life came to an end.

“An airplane flew to Narym once a week, and ships would arrive daily, not just one, like nowadays, but many. But now we’re like Stalin and Sverdlov, like Sverdlov and Stalin. Hey, young folks, do you know who Stalin is?” a female fellow passenger asks us.

Narym was a free land. In the sixteenth century, it was ruled by the Skewbald Horde, a group of four hundred Selkups, according to the written sources, or five million, as a beautiful brochure published by the local authorities claims. The horde was led by Prince Vonya, an ally of Kuchum Khan, ruler of the Khanate of Sibir. Battered by Cossack detachments and tsarist military governors, the khanate fell. The Skewbald Horde surrendered only after construction of Narym Fortress in the late sixteenth century.

A street in Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym was no longer a free land. Common criminals and enemies of the regime were exiled there, including the Decembrist Nikolai Mozgalevsky, the Latvian communist Jānis Pieče, the Bolsheviks Yakovlev, Shishkov, and Tomsky, and Stalin and Sverdlov, the latter along with his youngest brother. The political prisoners were not guarded very closely, and many of them managed to escape. Stalin, for example, spent only forty-one days of a five-year exile in Narym before grabbing a steamer to Tomsk and traveling from there to Switzerland, where he resumed his revolutionary career.

Little People
“You Russians distort everything. Ostyakh is not what Selkups called themselves, but what the Khanty called them. It means ‘here I am.’ Or take nyar’m, ‘marsh’ in Selkup. But no, you turn it into Narym.”

We are told this by Ludmila Shadrina, a Narym Selkup and former elementary school teacher.

Ludmila Shadrina. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila walks quickly, almost at a run, over the boardwalks that do the work of sidewalks in Narym. It is late and quite cold. The museum, which contains three rooms on political exiles and one room on the Selkups, closed much earlier in the day, but Ludmila has agreed with the people who run it to open it for us.

“Not all Selkups like it when people come and interrogate them.”

“But you like it?”

“My cow has been waiting for over an hour to be milked, and yet I’m running around here. But I realize we have to tell people about ourselves.”

I ask Ludmila why this is necessary.

“Because we exist,” Ludmila says.

In front of the little house of the peasant Alexeyev, where Stalin was quartered, is a karamo, a Selkup dugout. The house is authentic, but the karamo is a reconstruction: the Selkups ceased living in them in the early twentieth century. However, Ludmila says her nephew builds the very same dugouts when he hunts sables. Selkups still also build lean-tos, sheds mounted on piles to keep rodents from pilfering victuals.

Dugout at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Exhibits at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila, whose Selkup father died young, grew up in a small Selkup village with her Russian mother. All traces of the traditional way of life had vanished. The village was dying.

“Dad took me fishing with him,” says Ludmila. “What can you say? He was an Ostyak and fished well. We were still eating dried fish several years after his death. He was ill and that’s why he took me along. He thought if he kicked the bucket, then at least I, a living soul, would go find people and tell them where his body was. When Dad felt weak, he would lie on the sand, half asleep, half breathing. I would lie next to him, gazing at the forest, at all the bugs. The trees would sway, but what was beyond the trees? Bears? People? I was frightened.”

Ludmila takes us to her sister Raisa’s house, telling us on the way that bears have become more frequent in Narym in the past year. Тhey snatch cows, stroll down the street, and rip dogs to shreds. If people guard one side of the village, they will infiltrate it from the other side. Ludmila feared them as a little girl and still fears them as an adult. Bears are inventive, cagey animals. The surrounding area is chockablock with them.

When she greets us at the door, Raisa suggests “freezing” us, that is, getting out cold fish, so-called chush, cut into large rings.

“Do you go far to fish?”

“We fish right here on the creek.”

The “creek” is Raisa’s name for the Ob, Russia’s longest river.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Neither Raisa nor Ludmila speaks Selkup. They know only certain words.

“It wasn’t the done thing. Yeah, the old people spoke Selkup. We understood them, but replied in Russian, especially after going to boarding school.”

All the children from the tiny Selkup villages were not sent to a regular school in nearby towns, but to special Selkup schools many kilometers away. They were part of the special welfare system for the indigenous minorities of the Russian North, a system crowned by the Institute of the Peoples of the North, which still functions in St. Petersburg. During the impoverished postwar period, the boarding schools provided their young charges with everything from food to clothing. Being sent to such a boarding school was considered good fortune and a privilege. But this same privilege almost completely destroyed the Selkup language and eroded ethnic self-identity. The children would come back home speaking Russian, but more seriously, they no longer wanted to living in the small, impoverished Selkup villages.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

I ask Ludmila and Raisa whether they liked boarding school. They answered yes without hesitating. Nourishing food, good clothes, and friends, with many of whom they are still in touch.

A minute later, however, Raisa adds something.

“The boarding school influenced us. We got used to getting ourselves out of scrapes. We worked and we studied, and our parents helped us. But our own children are not independent. They are softer. They cannot do the things we did. I always told myself when I had a child I would not give it away to anyone. This is probably because of the boarding school.”

Boarding school students were teased, but Raisa remembers this without malice.

“Well yeah, we were teased, of course, and people said we drank a lot, that we were poor and narrow-minded. Only certain people would get stuck on this, and I would put my arms on my hips and say, ‘Yeah, I’m an Ostyak. What of it?!’ They didn’t know what to say.”

According to Ludmila, many of her fellow villagers are embarrassed of their ethnicity and identify themselves as Russians.

“Then the neighbors say to them, ‘You have passed yourselves off as Russians, but what you going to do with your Ostyak mug? We’re forest people, little people. Everything gives us away, including our faces and figures.”

The Last Native Speaker
Parabel, the district center, is a large, rich village, founded in the seventeenth century on the site of several old Russian settlements. Nowadays, major oil and natural gas pipelines run through it. Gazprom runs a compressor platform and oil pumping station in the village, and so its freshly paved streets are filled with foreign-made cars, and the rooms in certain hotels are never vacant, because there are many business travelers. There is a cinema, a cultural center, and a large museum, which has grown over the nearly thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse from a small in-school museum to a large-scale history and ethnography museum.

“When the Selkups organized themselves, culture got involved. What did you expect?” Irina Fokina, head of the local culture department explains. “They said it to me just like that: ‘Irina Petrovna, the time has come to deal with the small peoples.'”

“Did you know anything about the Selkups before this?”

“When I was at school, we didn’t know any Selkups. The Ostyaks, on the other hand, lived with us, and they were sometimes spoken of poorly,” Fokina falters, choosing her words carefully.

Irina Korobeinikova is the last native speaker of a rare Selkup dialect. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“They called us ‘second class,'” laconically notes Irina Korobeinikova, the last native speaker of the Narym dialect of Selkup and the person who launched the southern Selkup renaissance.

The notion of a “native speaker” is a quite broad concept, a concept with numerous gradations, ranging from people who remember a few words of their native language from childhood to those who converse with household members in their native language as adults. There are no such people left among the Selkups. Irina speaks Selkup fluently and publishes fairy tales and legends in her native tongue, but as reverse translations. First, she recalls a story or reads a Russian transcription of it, as recorded by ethnographers, and only then does she translate it into Selkup. Her children do not know the language. Even her brother, who grew up with her and has heard his fill of Selkup, converses with his sister in Russian.

“But why doesn’t he want to speak his native language?”

“He says he doesn’t want to and that’s that. Who can say?”

Irina spoke only Selkup until the age of seven, mainly with her grandmother, who raised her six grandchildren. Grandmother hunted and fished. Irina’s mother was also a good hunter. She and her sister would bring in two thousand squirrels per season and turn them over to the Soviet state in return for fabric to make a dress or a cashmere scarf. Did the Russian women hunt? Irina says she cannot recall such a thing. It was a purely Selkup practice.

“Did you call yourself Selkups?”

“We called ourselves chomilkups, forest people. Mom and Dad were identified as Ostyaks in their internal Soviet passports, while I was identified as a Selkup. By the way, when I went to the first Congress of Indigenous Minorities, in Kolpashevo, I raised this question when the head of the passport office spoke. I was indignant. Am I not related to Mom and Dad? I was told the academic world had settled on it. This was how our people were now called.”

Irina’s grassroots activism kicked off during perestroika.

“The authorities really supported us then.”

Korobeinikova recalls with pleasure the Congress of Indigenous Minorities of the North, this time held in Moscow, and meeting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The place in Parabel where the speedboats to Narym dock. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“The Yakuts and I went up to him. He had only recently been elected. We congratulated him. He shook our hands, and what soft hands he had. He had only ever held pens and papers in them, not shovels, as we had.”

The Soviet Union’s collapse opened borders, and foreign linguists came to see the Selkups. Irina shows me the first Selkup-Russian dictionary, published in Hungary. She tells me about a trip to Hamburg, where she was invited to translate texts in Selkup, written down by German scholars way back in the late nineteenth century. When I see a photograph of a jolly Japanese woman, dressed in a reconstructed Selkup costume, I cannot stand it anymore.

Hungarians, Germans, and Japanese. Why do the Selkups matter so much to them?

Irina smiles subtly and says, “That is because we’re so interesting.”

Happy People
“One of them just left. She was writing down everything. Either researchers are showing up or Irina comes. They sit down with their laptops and off they go. How did you do this? How did you do that?”

Illarion Ivanovich Izhenbin, a Belomorkanal cigarette dangling from his mouth, pumps the tire on his granddaughter’s bike. He lives in a two-storey stone house. There is a nest in the entryway: five swallow chicks protrude from it. Illarion says it’s a good omen, but the chicks are too loud. Sometimes you can hear them in his flat.

Illarion Izhenbin. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Are you tired of talking with researchers?”

“Would that I could remember something. I have lived among Selkups my whole life. When I go fishing, and it’s quiet and there is no one else round, I look at things and translate them silently. What are the Selkup words for stars, moon, and water? I spoke only Selkup until 1957. Do you know Selkup’s distinguishing trait? It has no foul language.”

“How did people curse?”

Homo tat! is the most you can say. It means ‘I’m sick of you,’ ‘Go to hell,’ ‘Don’t hang around here.'”

Illarion was also raised by his grandmother. His father was burned to death in a tank near the Reichstag four days before the Second World War ended, while his mother constantly worked in the fishing fleet of small Selkup village. As a boy, he fashioned arrowheads from tin cans, hunted with a bow, set traps, and fished.

“Granny taught me so well that if you left me in the wild with a knife and matches, I could survive,” he says. “She also always told me to look backwards, between my ears, to make sure there were no animals or bad men behind me. The taiga is not evil, but you can’t say the same thing about men.”

Illarion still goes out hunting, but he brings almost nothing back.

“When I catch sight of a squirrel or chipmunk and take aim, I feel sorry for them. After all, I converse with them. If I kill them, with whom will I converse? We are always asked what constitutes our identity, and it is bound up with hunting and fishing. So now my identity has left me, because I almost never kill animals.”

Illarion’s internal passport lists him as Russian, while his military service card identifies him as Ostyak.

“They came up with these Selkups of yours only when Khrushchev ascended the throne,” he says.

“How were Ostyaks treated?”

“Ostyaks were respected everywhere. I have been through the mill, but I was and always will be an Ostyak. When I meet old acquaintances at the police station, they say, ‘Illarion, for the things you were sent down for, you wouldn’t get three days in jail in our day and age.’ I went to prison camp six times.”

“Did the people in prison know you were an Ostyak?”

“Until I was fifty that was my nickname: Ostyak. Afterwards, they started calling me Grandpa. It means my life is over.”

The docks in Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Izhenbin recalls visits by researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Budapest. There have been lots of Germans.

“I got such a kick from one professor. He and I went fishing. He got himself muddy from head to toe, pulled out some crap half a palm long from the river, and said, ‘Wonderful!’ Do you know what that means in English? The little fish is excellent. Then I took him out to pick pine nuts, and after that we made fish soup and drank vodka. He told me that for him to spend a day like that at home, he would have to work for a whole year, but we live this way all the time. We are happy people.”

Every Tree in the Forest, Every Fish in the River
“There’s a lot of terra incognita in researching Selkups in general and Selkup culture in particular, but you reporters always ask the same questions,” says Grigory Korotkikh, displeased. “For example, why did I, a Russian, take up the study of the Selkup language, and what is written on my t-shirt?”

The slogan on his t-shirt reads, “Every tree in the forest, every fish in the river would understand you if you spoke Selkup.”

Grigory, who is 17, grew up in Seversk, a closed city not far from Tomsk, but we meet in Moscow, where he is attending a linguistics camp.

“I had tried learning different languages of the indigenous minorities of the North. It’s just that I was able to making a living connection with the southern Selkups,” says Korotkikh.

Grigory stresses he is primarily interested in the academic, linguistic aspect, but he almost immediately interrupts himself to say nothing has been done for the Selkup people. There are no books in Selkup, and the language has not been studied in a centralized way.

“We publish academic articles, but only for each other, for other researchers. It means nothing to the Selkups themselves,” he says excitedly. “The Selkups may, in fact, be happy to study their own language, but they have no means to do so.”

Grigory is the Seversk representative of the grassroots organization Kolta-Kup, which promotes the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North. His colleagues predict a big future for him in grassroots activism. There is a lot of work to be done. Local officials say the right things to indigenous peoples, but in practice they are treated as colorful ethnographic attractions, entertainment for tourists, and a means of reporting to higher-ups that the officials have been solving the problems of the local populace. Activists have not even been able to get a full-time position of Selkup language teacher established in the schools. Ludmila Shadrina in Narym and Irina Korobeinikova in Parabel ran their Selkup language and culture clubs at their own behest.

Non-Russian Languages
Tomsk is a university town. When you drive down the city’s main boulevard, still called Lenin Avenue, you pass Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk University of Control Systems and Radio Electronics, and Tomsk State University. Nadezhda Fedotova, a linguist at TSU, tells me how Tomsk and Moscow scholars managed to get the first academic mega grant in the field of linguistics, thus becoming part of an unprecedented program for financing university-level research in Russia.

The linguists’ overarching goal, which they stated in the application for the mega grant, is to describe the languages of Southern Siberia as fully as possible. Andrei Dulzon, a Soviet linguist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, began tackling the problem in the mid twentieth century. Exiled to Tomsk in 1941 as an ethnic German, Dulzon had lost everything from the ability to work in his profession to his unique card catalogue of dialects. In 1943, he was enlisted to work in the mines, but a year later the authorities relented and allowed the researcher to work at the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute. Dulzon had specialized in German dialects in Moscow, but in Tomsk he took up a new area of research, the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and carried out a revolution in the field. He encouraged archaeologists to excavate Siberian burial mounds, and he organized regular ethnographic and linguistic expeditions that collected so much raw data it is still being processed.

Nadezhda Fedotova, researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab.  Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Our ethnologist colleagues in Tomsk had already won a mega grant, and the tradition of researching minority languages has been a good one,” says Fedotova, “so it was decided to set up a linguistic anthropology lab here under the direction of Anna Dybo. And there she is!”

A corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the linguist and Turkologist Anna Dybo rides her bike toward the university library, which houses the lab. It is eight in the evening, but no one is planning to go home, despite the fact the linguists had to attend continuing education lectures all day.

According to Dybo, the lab currently employs seventy people: its funding is incomparable to any research group in the west. The most expensive line item in its budget are the expeditions to meet with native speakers of minority languages, but a lot of money is also spent on processing the data they collect and publishing it in the shape of huge dictionaries and text corpora. A text corpus is a gigantic structured set of texts, selected and processed according to certain rules, which is used to study a language, test statistical hypotheses, and validate linguistic rules. For all this to work, programmers and linguists must engage in a nonstop collaboration. At first, they worked for the sheer joy of it, but nowadays Russian technical designs are a product willingly purchased in the west. In addition to processing material that has already been collected, computer technology is used in field work, for example, a system that catches the way a person perceives a spoken word by tracking certain eye movements.

“Did you know the Selkups have a word meaning all colors at once?” asks Yulia Normanskaya, doctor of philology and head of the university’s Uralic languages department. “Green, blue, yellow, gray . . . Simply put, in their language, grass, the sky, and dandelions are the same color. When you ask them to translate it into Russian, they imagine it as one color.”

Yulia Normanskaya, senior researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Normanskaya got interested in minority languages in her youth after she learned her ancestors had translated the Gospels into the Chuvash language. Consequently, nearly all of them were shot during the Revolution.

“In the late nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church set up a Translation Commission to publish books in non-Russian languages,” she explains. “The primary aim was to spread the Word of God among minorities, but they published not only liturgical literature but also dictionaries and children’s tales.”

There were also medical brochures, e.g. “On Cholera,” “On Trachoma,” and there were moral tracts. Many of these publications have been lost irretrievably, although some have been preserved at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Another set was unexpectedly discovered in Finland. Normanskaya was looking through the card catalogue at the Helsinki Library [sic] and found information there about the publications of the Translation Commission. The booklets were simply lying in boxes, unsorted. No one had been making use of them or done any research on them. The find included three large books in Selkup, among them a complete translation of the Old and New Testaments, although the received opinion was that alphabets had been devised for the vast majority of indigenous peoples, including the Selkups, in the 1930s under Stalin. In Soviet times, the books of the Translation Commission were discussed pejoratively and accused of being primitive. However, by working with modern native speakers of minority languages, researchers have shown that, in fact, the books were a quite accurate record of the living languages.

“When you compare a map of native speakers of minority languages in the early twentieth century with the current map, the impression is, of course, completely catastrophic,” says Normanskaya. “Even when Dulzon was active, there were dozens of villages where people spoke only Selkup. Currently, there are six people who can tell tales, sing songs, and generally speak the central and southern dialects.”

Statuettes in the park at Tomsk State University. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkup dialects are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era.

“On the one hand, we see an impoverished daily life in which people barely speak their native tongue, and many are ashamed to admit they are Selkups. On the other hand, we find a unique language that has retained ancient features over the millennia, a language that converts into Enets, Nganasan, and other geographically remote languages with mathematical accuracy,” says Normanskaya.

If the language of the southern Selkups disappears, and researchers do not record it in time, what has been passed down through the centuries and preserved in the language for thousands of years will remain unknown forever.

“But if we described these dialects,” adds Normanskaya, “it would be one more proof that languages change in an amazingly systematic way. By converting words from one language into another according to mathematically exact rules, we can restore the pronunciation of the Siberian languages that existed before our era.”

I ask Normanskaya whether we should preserve a language if people do not want to speak it. Norman smiles and, instead of answering my question, recounts how the Soviet linguist Valentin Rassadin invented the Tofa alphabet in 1988. At the time, the Tofas themselved did not converse in their native tongue at all. In the 1990s, actvists in the Tofalar ethnic movement got the Tofa language, as written in Rassadin’s alphabet, on the curriculum of schools and kindergartens, and currently there are whole villages that speak Tofa. The Tofalars consider the linguist Rassadin a national hero.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits: What Boycotting the Presidential Election Would Mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Valery Dymshits
Facebook
January 7, 2018

Recently, discussions whether it makes sense to boycott the presidential election or, on the contrary, whether you should vigorously exercise your right to vote have been flaring up on the web ever more emphatically. I was involved in one such discrete discussion. Its instigator, Alexei Kouprianov, recommended I publish my comments as a separate post.

There are currently no presidential elections in our country, neither elections with alternative candidates nor elections with a single candidate, neither competitive elections nor non-competitive elections. There are no presidential elections at all. For the time being, there are regions in Russia that are electoral anomalies, while all other regions do the right thing, so to speak. In those regions, you need not worry how long ballot stuffing has been going on, and it is no problem to rewrite the final official vote tally reports. So, for all intents and purposes, elections have been abolished. What matters, therefore, is not Putin’s apparent impending victory. The procedure could not even be passed off as a sound sociopolitical survey, answering the question of how many folks in Russia are for the Reds, how many are for the Whites, how many are for apples, and how many are for pears.

Since no election will take place, this should tone down the debate to a certain extent. This is my call for peace and a peaceable tone among those debating involvement and non-involvement in the election. Those who will go to the polls and those who do not are in the same straits. Neither the former nor the latter will be taking part or not taking part in an election, whatever they imagine they are doing, because objectively, that is, regardless of subjective impressions, you cannot take part in something that does not exist.

You cannot take part in it, not in the sense it is forbidden to take part, but in the sense it is impossible to take part.

The only thing that remains to be seen is what behavior is preferable given the circumstances.

The people currently involved in the electoral process have never been able to get back the significant numbers of votes stolen from them nor have they been able to make this highway robbery the subject of a serious public debate. This is possibly not their fault, since the Russian judicial system is dysfunctional, but that is not my point. The existing parties and candidates will try and raise the turnout by campaigning for themselves. In this wise, the candidates and the Kremlin are pursuing the same end. Later, a final vote tally will be whipped up for them in keeping with deals made before the elections or, on the contrary, they will be conned. This is no concern of ours. That is, the well-known scenario, implemented many times before, will be reprised. In short, we have been through this before.

What we have not been through before is a serious, well-organized boycott, although they were some calls for boycotts in the past. At least there is chance to find out on the ground whether we have a chance of organizing an election boycott or not, whether it has an effect on anything or not. This, at least, would expand our experimental knowledge of the subject.

Simple mathematical calculations have shown a decreased turnout increases the percentage of votes cast for Putin. But do we care what percentage of votes are cast for him, whether it is 65% or 75%, if the final figures are knowingly false and dictated by the top bosses? In the extreme case, if only solid Putin supporters turned out to vote, he would take home 100% of the vote, and that would be utterly unacceptable, because a European leader cannot win 100% of the vote, and Putin is well aware of it.

A noticeable decrease in the turnout, one that was clearly distinguishable from the statistical margin of error, would be tantamount to saying a considerable segment of the Russian populace had concluded that elections in Russia were wanting, to say the least. This would be an important political outcome.

For the time being I leave aside additional moral perks, say, deliberate non-participation in a fictitious process, non-participation in events approved by the Kremlin, etc.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

P.S. Every reporter or “Russia expert” who has written or been tempted to write something like, “With an 80% approval rating, Putin should easily cruise to victory in March,” should be made to read multi-talented Valery Dymshits’s short but sweet piece on why there are no such beasts as elections in Russia and the possible political benefits of a more or less massive non-turnout to the non-election scheduled for March.

I would like to add that every such reporter and “Russia expert” should be made to read this short primer on what amounts to common knowledge in Russia right before they are fired and drummed out of the profession, but the angel in me reminds me that some people cannot help liking and supporting tyrants and imagining that lots of other people like them, especially in “inferior” countries.

That it’s accredited journalists and academics involved in this baseless condescension should not surprise you. It’s always easier to get along in life if you say and do what the majority of your so-called peers and colleagues are doing, especially if you’re mansplaining a place where you don’t actually live and about which you are really quite clueless, and you get paid to do this more or less harmful work.

I thought the attack on the Russian pollocracy that was mounted by me and several other people several years ago had begun to make a dent, that some journalists and “Russian experts” were coming to see the light that polls and elections are nearly always rigged in Putinist Russia and thus provide us with nearly zero knowledge of what “Russians really think.” But I had forgotten that most reporters are lazy and many academics are dazzled by tyrants and numbers as “scientific facts.” With Putin’s self re-election just around the bend, push has come to shove, and the unprovability of his actually nonexistent popularity has been shoved back under the rug. TRR

Kefir the Plough

I cannot discern grace.

A child of God may have the kingdom of grace in his heart, and yet not know it. The cup was in Benjamin’s sack, though he did not know it was there; so thou mayest have faith in thy heart, the cup may be in thy sack, though thou knowest it not. Old Jacob wept for his son Joseph when Joseph was alive; so thou mayest weep for want of grace, when grace may be alive in thy heart. The seed may be in the ground, when we do not see it spring up; so the seed of God may be sown in thy heart, though thou dost not perceive it springing up. Think not grace is lost because it is hid.

Before the kingdom of grace come into the heart, there must be some preparation for it; the fallow ground must be broken up: I fear the plough of the law has not gone deep enough: I have not been humbled enough: therefore I have no grace.

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Today on The Archers:

At Bridge Farm Susan is keen to start promoting the kefir again now that Christmas is over. However, Helen is far too busy, and insists she’ll have to wait for Tom to return from his conference. Susan devises a market research project of her own, and starts pouncing on customers at the Ambridge Tearoom. Fallon and Emma worry that she’s scaring away customers, and do their best to moderate her zeal. Eventually Emma puts her foot down: the Tea Room is not the place for Susan’s market research.

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What Emma says to Susan when she puts her foot down over the latter’s sinister kefirization of the Ambridge Tea Room:

Take Life or Nonlife in the Anthropocene and the Meteorocene. Geology and meteorology are devouring their companion discipline, biology. For if we look at where and how life began, and how and why it might end, then how can we separate Life from Nonlife? Life is not the miracle—the dynamic opposed to the inert of rocky substance. Nonlife is what holds, or should hold for us, the more radical potential. For Nonlife created what it is radically not, Life, and will in time fold this extension of itself back into itself as it has already done so often and long. It will fold its own extension back into the geological strata and rocky being, whereas Life can only fall into what already is. Life is merely a moment in the greater dynamic unfolding of Nonlife. And thus Life is devoured from a geological perspective under the pressure of the Anthropocene and Meteorocene. Life is merely another internal organ of a planet that will still be here when it is not, when we are not, undergoing its unfolding, creating who knows what. Will Life be a relevant concept there? If not, perhaps Nonlife will finally be freed from Life’s anxiety, freed from being Nonlife, or as Luce Irigaray might have said, from being the other of the same, freed to finally be the other of the other.

Until then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the emergence of geontopower is mobilizing very similar techniques and tactics that we saw when we were looking at late liberalism. We hear all around us the coming Event, the catastrophic imaginary orienting and demanding action—the last wave, the sixth extinction. And yet pulsing through various terrains is a very different temporality—the river becomes a polluted dump; the fog becomes smog; rock formations become computer components. Is this why the poetics of the quasi-event stitch together the environmental studies of Rob Nixon, the affective optimisms of Lauren Berlant, and the crumbling worlds of settler liberalism? It is most certainly why we see the constant seduction of older late liberal politics of recognition: the sudden realization, the welcoming of an otherwise into what already exists, the extension of qualities we already most value and create most of our value from to the other.

Get out the musical instruments. Put on the robes. Say a mass of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead. Cling to life if even in the form of its mass extinction.

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I can imagine listeners will have a lot to say about the further radicalization of The Archers on this week’s edition of Feedback.

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Persian Rugs

russian_carpet_on_the_wall

Antrr Ra
Facebook
January 2, 2018

For several days, Iranians have been openly protesting the corrupt system in their country. They have been protesting not only in the capital Tehran but also in at least fifty other cities. They had been promised more freedom and openness in terms of how the country’s budget is spent, and prices for food have been skyrocketing.

In Russia, the authorities have not promised anyone anything for a long time, and people have been staying at home, looking forward to the upcoming presidential elections.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Anatrr Ra for their kind permission to reproduce their remarks on my website. Photo courtesy of correctlydesign.com

Dmitry Kalugin: Is That a Human Being?

 

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Dmitry Kalugin
Facebook
January 1, 2018

Yesterday, for the first time in many years, I listened to the leader. I listened and thought, “Is that a human being?” In other news, it has snowed.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mr. Kalugin for his kind permission to translate and reproduce his remarks on his website. You can support him and me emotionally in the coming months by banishing from your head the pernicious, widespread myth that the leader enjoys tremendous popular support. If anything, it is now obvious to observers on the ground that the leader has produced a sense of tremendous hopelessness in large swathes of the populace and has become deeply unpopular by leaps and bounds, especially in the past year.

Opaque

Finance Ministry Deletes Info on Ministerial Salaries
Ivan Tkachov
RBC
December 31, 2017

Information on the salaries of federal ministers in 2016 has disappeared from the website of the Russian Finance Ministry. The information was deleted a day after RBC published the article “Finance Ministry Discloses Salaries of Ministers for First Time.” 

More than ten sets of publicly accessible information, including the number of employees and average monthly salaries at state ministries and agencies, the number of official vehicles, etc., was posted by the Finance Ministry on December 11. On December 27, RBC discovered the open data essentially disclosed the official average monthly salaries of the heads of federal ministries, except the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, for 2016. Previously, information about the salaries of  ministers had not been disclosed.

On December 28, this information disappeared entirely from the Finance Ministry’s website without any explanation. As of December 31, it was still not listed in the ministry’s open data registry. Data on salaries at government ministries and agencies had earlier been located on this page, and information that this was the case has been saved in Google’s web cache.

Screenshot of Russian Finance Ministry website page that had previously listed the salaries of ministers. Now it reads, “Error 404: Page Not Found.”

The liaison officer at the IT Department for State and Municipal Finance Management and Budget Processs Informational Support has not responded to our request for information. The Finance Ministry’s press secretary also failed to respond to our request.

In the open data, now inaccessible, the Finance Ministry disclosed the average monthly salary of “employees holding public offices” at each of the federal ministries. Since only one person, the minister, occupies public office at each ministry, the data actually amounted to information about the salaries of ministers.

Accordingly, the finance minister was the highest paid minister in 2016, earning 1.729 million rubles a month [approx. 25,000 euros]. He was followed by the economic development minister, who earned 1.266 million rubles a month [approx. 18,000 euros] and the energy minister, who earned 1.155 million rubles a month [approx. 16,700 euros]. They earned from eleven to thirteen times more than the average staffer in their ministries. Twelve ministers listed their ministerial salaries as basically their only source of declared income, according to our calculations.

RBC has learned that publication of ministers’ salaries has provoked discontent in the ministries. Thus, a source in one ministry compared it with “sabotage.”

The information removed from public access had mostly been published on the Finance Ministry’s website in June 2017. The .pdf file contained information about the number of employees in federal ministries, the travel expenses of federal ministries and state agencies, and the number of official vehicles, but not the salaries of individual ministers, which was disclosed for the first time.

What Else the Finance Ministry’s Data Told Us
In 2016, Russian federal ministries and agencies owned or used a total of 47,000 vehicles. The average monthly cost of maintaining each vehicle was 27,000 rubles [approx. 390 euros].

The Prosecutor General’s Office (its central administration and regional offices) had the most vehicles: 4,269. The Federal Bailiff Service was in second place, with 4,209 vehicles, followed by the Federal Tax Service, with 4,030 vehicles. The Emergency Situations Ministry had approximately 3,500 vehicles at its disposal, while the Investigative Committee, Federal Customs Service, and the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Cartography (Rosreestr) each had approximately 3,000 vehicles in their motor pools.

In 2016, the Health Ministry, which had only 47 vehicles at its disposal, had the most expensive maintenance costs per vehicle: 341,000 rubles [approx. 4,900 euros]. The Russian Government’s maintenance cost per vehicle was 327,000 rubles. It had a motor pool of 270 vehicles.

Last year, the federal ministries and agencies spent almost 7 billion rubles on official travel [approx. 101 million euros]. The biggest spenders were the Federal Customs Service and the Federal Tax Service, which spent 742 million rubles and 712 million rubles, respectively. If we talk only about official foreign travel, the biggest spender was the Foreign Ministry: it spent 200 million rubles on travel abroad in 2016. It was followed by the Finance Ministry and the Economic Development Ministry, which spent 57.9 million rubles and 51.8 million rubles, respectively, on official trips abroad.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

Andrey Kalikh: It’s Good to Live in the Country

48763870One view of the Russian countryside

Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
December 31, 2017

Four and half years ago, we got the hell out of the city and settled in the country. Three circumstances happily combined to facilitate this: the issue of an apartment, which had been suffocating us; metal fatigue, so to speak; and the lack of the need to go to the office.

By this time I was grazing on the abundant meadows of freelancing, earning money as I had never earned by translating from German, writing articles for the German media, and working as a fixer for German reporters. After the tedium of an office human rights job, I had the sense I had finally yielded to sin, and my fall was as predictable as it was sweet.

Since then, the four of us have become five, the kids play in a two-story house, and I have my own study, where I pen valuable eternities, like Solzhenitsyn in Vermont. And then I go outside and deal with eternal values, like the roof, the sewer, firewood, sawdust, and so on.

I’ve long been able to earn a living without leaving the house, and increasingly I have no idea why I should go to the city. More and more often, my trips to the city are limited to the airport.

Time and distance have a salutary effect on mind and nerves. I have a nervous mind, and the big city and its hysterical intensity were claiming both my mind and my nerves. Life in the country is wonderful for its emptiness. It is your personal responsibility to fill the emptiness.

So, despite outward deprivations, my year has been peaceful and successful thanks to new ideas and the new wonderful people who have appeared in our midst recently, most of them in virtual space. In 2018, I would like to devirtualize my relationships with most of you. As for old friends, I would just like to see you.

With the beautiful Natasha Panova, without whom none of this would have happened.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of panoramio.com

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